The multiplex cinema – is it the natural habitat of gormless, fat scum? Is it the enemy of culture? Is it the corporate blight on our collective imagination?
No is the obvious answer, but it does seem that for some the multiplex is emblematic of all that is awful and tedious and rotten about modern filmmaking and in some cases all that is rotten about the modern world.
Last weekend's Sunday Times reported the rise of something called the "real cinema" movement which looks to create real, local cinemas and recreate the "idea of cinema as an event". This includes watching films in comfy armchairs, serving fancy food (the example they give is goat's cheese mousse with mesclun and hazelnut toast) and having hostess service.
The article's author Bryan Appleyard poured out his hatred of the multiplex and its audience – the cinemas exist "on windblown sites also occupied by B&Q and Comet" and "The tickets are pricey and the disgusting food and flat coke so expensive they are bought only by people so up to their eyeballs in debt that it doesn't matter anymore" he said. Elsewhere he describes the audience as brats. Multiplexes were not, he quotes someone as saying, "designed to show film, they were designed to sell popcorn and hotdogs".
Multiplexes are not designed to sell popcorn and hot dogs, they are designed to show films – the big room with a screen in it gives that away.
Appleyard welcomes the “real cinema” movement because it allows himself to get away from the spendthrift punters and their brats, but as well as being elitist, Appleyard's criticisms are also based on a quirky grasp of architecture. Multiplexes are not designed to sell popcorn and hot dogs, they are designed to show films – the big room with a screen in it gives that away. Also, these big rooms tend to have walls, which make the windswept location an irrelevant factor in the punter's cinematic experience. Personally I would find having a hostess in a cinema way more annoying than having to sit next to people who are in debt.
But I can understand the nostalgic appeal of old cinemas. The cinema I went to as a kid – the Ritz in the Hampshire seaside town of Gosport – was a huge red brick, art deco barn of a place. It was pulled down a few years ago and replaced by a supermarket. The space now hovering about 20 feet over the checkout tills is where I sat in the front row of the balcony and totally lost myself in Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Moonraker. Later it was where I once impressed a girl enough with my crying at Dead Poet's Society for her to go out with me. She dumped me not long after (for being a wuss I suppose), but my love affair with the Ritz was built on something much stronger and I was devastated when it was pulled down. I doubt if there is an afterlife, but if there is I want my "passage" or "passing", or whatever it is Americans are currently calling being dead, to feel just like moving through the lobby of the Ritz Cinema – up the spiral staircase and through those big, heavy, brass plated double doors into an auditorium full of no more than the promise of escape and adventure.
However... the Ritz was also really uncomfortable. The seats were ancient, they had wafer thin cushions and they creaked. The sound was terrible. The sound proofing was hopeless and we were surrounded by the sound of the High Street. It only showed two main features a day and the queues to get in would run out of the lobby out into the street and out into the drizzle. It all felt a bit "post war". It came from a world of privation, rationing and general unhappiness. It came from a world where entertainment was designed to both remove you, whist simultaneously reminding you, of how dour and miserable everyday life can be. The Ritz may have been a privately run business but it didn't feel a million miles away from the culture of the BBC, where posh chaps decided the what and when of what you watched. The BBC was nicknamed "Aunty". This was because aunties are kindly authority figures – just like mothers are kindly authority figures – but calling the BBC "Mother" would have been too weird. But it was clear, this was a culture where the leisure industries liked to call themselves mother. It was rubbish.
In 1979, when I was 11, I went to visit my real Aunty who had immigrated to the States. America felt like the Promised Land. We had Butlins, they had Disney World. We had three channels which were always going off air, they had 7 zillion. We had eight Wimpy Bars; they had empires of Burger Kings and MacDonald's. They had bars with tellies in, we had pubs that closed a lot. They had Toys 'R' Us, we had jumble sales. They had Burt Reynolds, we had Bert Millichip. They had neon, we had Bakelite. They had rockets; we had buses that smelt of spam and mould. We had the draughty old Ritz cinema, and they had multiplex cinemas. Everything there was better and the customer was always right and choice was king. It was a Golden Kingdom of Consumption. It was awesome.
America felt like the Promised Land. We had Butlins, they had Disney World. We had three channels which were always going off air, they had 7 zillion.
Gradually over the last 30 years the UK has caught up with the USA. We now have better, faster food, we have Bakelite iPod’s, shopping centres, giant toy shops, multi channel TV and multiplex cinemas & all the stuff that made the USA of 1979 feel like a Utopia. Of course it turns out it wasn't a Utopia. If consumer led capitalism was a Utopia it wouldn't have created more pornography than could ever be used, degrading talent shows and Chelsea FC – but in the absence of a perfect Utopia, I will still happily champion much of the consumer led world of the leisure society because most of it's not so bad and occasionally it's lovely.
And of all the things that I would champion in the consumer led leisure society, the multiplex probably comes first.
Last summer I sat in The Picture House, Cambridge's most excellent art house cinema, to listen to film critic Mark Kermode give a talk promoting his book "The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex". He's an entertaining talker and writer and he soon slipped into delivering one of his trademark diatribes (a.k.a. the Kermodian Rant). This particular rant was against the multiplex.
Like Appleyard, Kermode finds everything about the multiplex objectionable (unlike Appleyard this does not seem to be born out of snobbery). Kermode found buying a ticket online almost impossible. The tickets were expensive, the car journey was difficult, the staff seemed disinterested, the queues were too long, there was too much junk food on offer, people were too noisy in the cinema, the cinema was too small and the film was screened in the wrong ratio.
Some of these criticisms of multiplex cinemas are legitimate (the screen ratio thing & the cost) but there are loads of things in the modern world that come with the addition of extra irritation, and that includes visiting art house cinemas.
In art house cinemas I've been irritated by batty old posh women gorging themselves on Murray mints, by a women who thought it was ok to bring a bawling baby into a one-off screening of the re-mastered version of Powell and Pressburger's "Red Shoes", by self important tutting, by the difficulty of parking in city centres and by the problems of getting transactions transacted with the scruffy creative’s behind the till who have a vague and slightly sneery approach to flogging their tickets and flogging their carbon neutral falafel.
But it isn't just that, I don't buy many of Kermode's criticisms because I don't think multiplex cinemas are any more or less irritating than art house cinemas. I also disagree with him because I think multiplex cinemas are fundamentally good things.
In art house cinemas I've been irritated by batty old posh women gorging themselves on Murray mints.
Thanks to multiplex cinemas there are now about 20 screens in my hometown of Cambridge (three of these screens are in the aforementioned Picturehouse). Each of these screens is showing films from midday to midnight every day. I reckon that every day in Cambridge there are over 60 screenings of films – and with more screenings comes more films to be screened. In terms of choice there hasn't been a better time in human history to go to the cinema.
As well as this, multiplexes are convenient, they tend to sit on the edge of towns on ring roads, so parking and public transport is not a problem. You can buy tickets online (which is way easier to do than Mark Kermode suggests). They are expensive but deals can be had (cheap Tuesdays, annual tickets and so on). The staff can be surly but most people that work in the service sector are only as nice to you as you are to them.
But the fundamental reason why I champion the multiplex is because the multiplex is the natural home to some of the last decade's best cinema.
Mark Kermode's dislike of the multiplex is part of a bigger, subtler argument, that says that there is parity between what he sees as the awfulness of the multiplex experience and the drivel that is served up as blockbuster cinema to fill these places. I don't disagree with the examples he cites: Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Sex and the City 2, Pearl Harbour – but there is way more to what gets shown in multiplexes than these blockbusters.
Over the last decade kid’s cinema has gone from strength to strength. This is mostly down to the glorious Pixar, whose "Wall-E", "Up" and the "Toy Story" trilogy is some of the greatest children's cinema ever made. CGI has flourished in kid's cinema and has lent itself to the telling of huge epic stories. Few cinematic battles have been as visceral and immense and thrilling as the battle for Helm's Deep in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Harry Potter films have got better and in the last few instalments, under the direction of David Yates, the quality of film making has been every bit a match to the quality of the original stories. Yates has made brilliant cinema that tells a bleak, violent, redemptive story about adolescence and death. There is almost something Bergmanesque in sections of his films and that married to CGI and dragons and magic and so on is quite fantastic.
The multiplex made a generation of filmmakers who grew up to make great films about film.
Away from children’s films, we have also seen in the multiplex the rise of a generation of filmmakers who grew up watching films in the multiplex and on VHS. These filmmakers have self consciously made film about film – which has been done before – but instead of the cold, clinical, hateful, over intellectual film about film of Goddard for example, we got the smart, brilliant, carefree and incredibly funny film about film of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz etc), the strange, but compelling mix of social realism with a love of "The Predator" in Joe Cornish's "Attack The Block" and last year we got the excellent JJ Abrams' love affair with the Spielberg movies of his own youth in "Super 8".
I would also argue that The King's Speech; Black Swan and Inception are not inherently art house films. They were shown in the nation's art house cinemas but they also made their money in the multiplex. They were all critically well regarded.
I'm not arguing that this is a golden age of film making (though I would argue it's a golden age for kid's film) but for great storytelling and for the use of new technologies and new ideas in the cinematic process, and for brilliant cinema, for wit and for pleasure, then at the moment you are probably better off looking in the multiplex than in the art house.
So hurrah for the multiplex. Hurrah for its choice, its convenience and its comfort. Hurrah for it having crowd avoiding late night/early afternoon screenings. Hurrah for its bored staff whom it's very easy to smuggle Tesco bought food and drink past. And hurrah for it being the natural home for some of the best cinema of the last 10 years.
Join the debate and let Bryan Appleyard know what you think about multiplexes - @Bryanappleyard
Other Stories You Really Should Read...
Click here for more stories about TV & Film
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook